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Water behind 'quake lake' nearing top of dam

  • Story Highlights
  • Water behind earthquake-created dam nears a spillway designed to relieve pressure
  • Threat of aftershocks and rain put the area in "extreme danger," says chief engineer
  • Authorities have evacuated about 200,000 people at risk if water overflows the dam
  • Official death toll from the quake has risen to 69,122
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BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Authorities in southwestern China watched nervously Wednesday as rising water behind an earthquake-created dam neared a spillway designed to relieve pressure on it.

The threat of aftershocks from the May 12 quake and more rain, meanwhile, put the area in "extreme danger," said Liu Ning, chief engineer of the Ministry of Water Resources.

Heavy rainfall and severe aftershocks could compromise the integrity of the dam and send water cascading out.

In the event of particularly heavy rain and a major aftershock, the chances of a catastrophic failure would stand at 93 percent, Liu estimated.

Authorities have evacuated about 200,000 people who are considered to be at risk if water overflows the dam.

Engineers built the spillway to drain water from the lake in a controlled way once it tops the lowest levels of debris blocking the river. Video Watch report from quake lake command center »

On Tuesday, water in the so-called Tangjiashan quake lake was within 8 feet (2.4 meters) of the spillway, in Beichuan county, Cheng Dianlong, deputy chief of the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters, told the Xinhua news agency.

Engineers used heavy equipment and dynamite to chisel a 1,560 foot-long (475-meter-long) spillway through tons of rock and soil that slid off the hillside during the earthquake. They finished work on the channel Sunday.

Thirty-five so-called quake lakes were created by the 7.9-magnitude quake.

The Tangjiashan lake worries Chinese officials most because it could threaten up to 1.3 million people downstream.

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The official death toll from the earthquake has risen to 69,122, an increase of 15, the country's Civil Affairs Ministry reported Wednesday, according to state-run media.

Another 373,606 people were injured and 17,991 remain missing, according to the ministry.

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